During February of 1974, Samuel Bicke (Sean Penn) arrived at Baltimore Washington Airport with a gun and big plans which he had outlined in audio tapes sent to composer Leonard Bernstein. Two years earlier, he was a man who had been separated from his wife and children for over a year, and even though he loved them deeply his waitress wife Marie (Naomi Watts) wasn't interested in getting back together with him. He had just started a new job as a salesman in an office furniture showroom, and was being groomed by his boss (Jack Thompson) as one of his top staff; Bicke was given a couple of self-help books and tapes to learn from. But he was finding the rat race more and more difficult to cope with, which is why he found himself at that airport on that day...
Written by Kevin Kennedy and the director Niels Mueller, this low key drama of quiet desperation turning to violence had the advantage of being about a small part of history that not many people remembered, or if they did had dismissed. This suits the main character: a resounding failure in life, whose defining act is now forgotten. The face of then-president Richard Nixon haunts Bicke from television sets wherever he goes, as if taunting him with his lack of success, standing for all that Bicke has grown to despise about the United States of America and its promise of self fulfilment through making money - especially as Bicke is losing the ability to make money.
Bicke sees injustice wherever he goes; as an example, his mechanic friend Bonny Simmons (Don Cheadle, quietly earnest) is his prospective business partner, but one of Bicke's preoccupations is that Bonny won't be allowed to succeed in business because he is a black man and he believes racism is endemic. He even goes to the lengths of visiting the local branch of the Black Panthers to offer his support and suggests that they admit white people into their ranks to swell their numbers (and to put forward a new name for them, the Zebras - who are black and white combined, understand?).
Penn is quite simply superb as the terminal loser Bicke, uncertain, sweaty, fighting back panic and the modern world which is by its very nature out to destroy him. When he visits his soon to be ex-wife and kids, his neediness is pathetic to see, particularly as it's obvious they are better off without him, and he begins waiting outside their house and dropping in on his wife at work in the hope she will pay loving attention to him. She doesn't - Watts adeptly plays it similarly worn down by life, but more in control. As all this is going on, Bicke awaits a letter from the bank confirming a loan he hopes to receive to start his dream of a tire company with Bonny, and we know from his first interview with the manager it's just not going to happen.
Shot in a despairing range of greys and beiges, The Assassination of Richard Nixon is a hard film to enjoy with all the squirming it induces, although there is plenty to admire, not only in Penn's performance. Thompson is aggressively excellent as the boss, the early scene where he plays an intimidating trick on Bicke to secure a sale makes it clear that as a salesman Bicke is out of his depth, and a short sequence with the great Michael Wincott as the brother Bicke has stolen from illuminates how far the man has fallen in stature. It's a combination of being his own worst enemy and the dog eat dog world he inhabits that drives him to his biggest mistake, and the audio tapes he makes sound uncharacteristically forthright as if this is his true mission in life. Thought provoking, if a little redundant after the first half, the film's desperate tone stays in the mind. Music by Steven M. Stern.